Year of Release: 1986 Directed by Oliver Stone. Starring Charlie Sheen, Willem Dafoe, Tom Berenger, Keith David, and Johnny Depp.
If you are a fan of this movie, I suggest taking your blood pressure medication before reading this review. For I come to bury Platoon, not to praise it. The flaws of this film substantially outweigh the tiny amount of good that it debatably accomplishes, good which can be found in other vastly superior Vietnam War films.
Vastly superior Vietnam War films would most notably include Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece Apocalypse Now and Stanley Kubrick’s flawed but compelling and thought provoking Full Metal Jacket. Both of those films tell intriguing stories that challenge the viewer and make him consider and think about what he has seen. Platoon, on the other hand, relies on cheap emotional manipulation and shock tactics to hammer its point home: war is EVIL, and it makes soldiers do EVIL things. Apparently, Oliver Stone believes we need two hours of lousy, predictable, manipulative storytelling to tell us that war is evil.
Charlie Sheen plays Chris Taylor, a wealthy white collar American student who drops out of college and enlists to fight in Vietnam as a way of proving that he can accomplish something on his own and also as a means of rebelling against his parents. Since he is a new recruit, none of the other soldiers respect him, and they spend much of their time belittling him and giving him humiliating tasks like cleaning the outhouse.
Fortunately for Taylor, one of his superiors, Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe) takes a liking to him and defends him against some of the rougher soldiers. Elias welcomes Taylor and they bond over a shared joint of marijuana when some of the nicer privates invite Taylor to their late night recreational drug party.
Unfortunately for Taylor, the moral and conscientious Elias is locked in a power struggle with the sadistic and power hungry Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger), who tries to make life miserable for Elias and his privates. We know Elias is the good guy, because he criticizes the war and calls it pointless, whereas Barnes loves the war as a way to brutalize both the Vietnamese and American soldiers who question his ruthless tactics. Barnes has a badly scarred face, while Elias is good looking. Barnes lies to his superiors, but Elias’ reports contain the truth. Barnes rapes women and shoots children for fun, and encourages his soldiers to do likewise. Elias beats up Barnes when he catches him murdering civilians, which causes a fight to break out between the privates who support Barnes and those who support Elias.
As an extension of the conflict between Barnes and Elias, Barnes’ privates make life difficult for Elias’ privates, because they are the villains and that is what they are supposed to do. In case you were wondering, it was Elias’ privates who invited Taylor to the marijuana party. Barnes and his privates do not miss an opportunity to bully, humiliate, and outright torture any soldier they do not like. Soldiers they dislike include nearly all of the African American soldiers, because the bad guys apparently have to be racist as well.
Every character and situation is an extreme caricature. There is no nuance or subtlety; no complex human beings who struggle with temptations to do evil, sometimes overcoming them, sometimes not. Instead the brutality becomes increasingly absurd and dehumanizing without any balancing counterpart. Since there is no sympathetic character to ground the viewer in the story, the brutally graphic violence becomes boring and desensitizing. It does not come across as horrific, because every situation is so extreme that there is no way for horror to upset the normal order of operations. If Stone had gone the slightest bit more extreme, Platoon would have been a comedy along the lines of Monty Python’s gory “Salad Days” or dark “Killer Joke.”
After two hours of watching the most contrived scenarios imaginable as soldiers debase themselves and sink to greater moral evils than the Vietnamese that they are fighting, Oliver Stone still fears that the audience is stupid and may have missed the blatant moral message that he has been bludgeoning into the viewer since the first scene. To explain the moral message that war is bad, Stone employs gratuitous voiceovers from Sheen as Taylor explains that war is horrible because it makes men no different than the enemy that they are fighting.
I beg to differ; in Platoon, the Vietnamese are honorable, family loving, and only depicted as fighting in self defense. Barnes and his privates are so repulsive, considering the absence of any moral order, the conclusion in which Taylor descends to Barnes’ level is natural and easy to predict well over an hour before it occurs. Barnes’ actions which drive Taylor over the edge are also obvious long before they happen.
In the film’s defense, I will admit that there were some scenes with very strong camera work that created the claustrophobic sense of oppression from the Vietnam jungle as well as the sense of hopelessness from the seemingly lost cause of the Vietnam War. However, that hardly saves the film.
Challenging, profound, harrowing, and masterpiece are all words that I have heard used to refer to Platoon. The words that come to my mind are: emotionally manipulative, predictable, in-your-face preachy, and desensitizing due to absurdity. I found this film so frustrating that it is one of the rare times that I truly cannot understand what anyone sees in it. Just because a film is about a tragic subject or contains shocking violence does not make it good. The way that a film presents its subject (important or not) is the determining factor for its artistic merit. Even as someone who mostly agrees with Stone’s points concerning the great evils that war can tempt men to commit, his irritating, manipulative, and extreme presentation obliterates any worthwhile message that Platoon might have had.
Content Advisory: Many gruesome and graphic depictions of wartime atrocities, much profane and obscene language, recreational drug use, and fleeting rear nudity. MPAA rating: R
Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment
Overall Recommendation: D+